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Wednesday, December 11. Fallbrook, California.
“I found the decorations.” Hayley Stevens carried the box into the living room where her mom, Joyce, was seated on the sofa writing Christmas cards. A cinnamon-scented candle perfumed the air and carols played softly in the background. The rich smells of baking shortbread wafted through from the kitchen.
Hayley set down the box and stepped back to eye the tree critically. “Does it look off-center?”
“It’s perfect,” Joyce said, glancing up. “I wonder where Brad is? He said he wanted to help decorate the tree.”
“I’ll give him a call.” Hayley pulled out her phone and punched in her brother’s number. Between their various work commitments, she hadn’t seen him in several months and was looking forward to catching up and having some relaxing family time.
“Yo, sis,” Brad said when he picked up. “I tried to call Mom a while ago, but it went straight to voice mail. Do you know if she’s home?”
“Yes, she is. I’m here, too, and just about to start the tree,” Hayley said. “How long are you going to be?”
“Sorry, I can’t make it after all.” He spoke loudly, above background noise of people and loudspeakers.
“Oh, no. Why not?” Hayley said. Whatever his reply, it was drowned out by what sounded like a jet taking off. “Where are you?”
“LAX. My plane leaves for the Philippines in half an hour.”
“But you said you would be here for Christmas this year.” She made a dismayed face at her mother. Brad was a logistics officer, who was the onsite coordinator of aid supplies for Doctors Without Borders, and he often went overseas for weeks. “Will you be back in time?”
“I doubt it. A massive typhoon just slammed into the eastern end of the archipelago,” Brad said.
“When did you find this out?” Hayley said. “You could have let us know you were going away. We could have had a quick get-together before you went.”
“I had literally twenty-four hours’ notice,” he said. “Can you put Mom on? We’ll be boarding soon.”
“Right, I understand.” Hayley tried to channel peace and goodwill, but as well as feeling disappointed, she was a little ticked off. Her brother had worked the last two Christmases and was due to have this holiday off. He’d promised. It was especially important because this was the first Christmas after their father, Stan, had passed. She wanted both her and Brad to be here to make this holiday as happy as possible for their mom. But, as always, if he was needed, Brad put his hand up to help. She loved him for it; she just hated that she and her mother always seemed to come last. “Okay, stay on the phone. I want to talk to you again quickly after Mom.”
She handed her phone to her mother. While her brother repeated his story, Hayley turned on CNN and put the sound down low. Images of the devastation on the tiny islands played on a loop while reporters cataloged the damage so far. She felt sick for all those affected and appalled that her brother was heading straight into the disaster zone.
“I hope Brad will be okay,” Joyce said, putting the phone on the coffee table next to her address book.
“Did he hang up already?” Hayley asked. “I wanted to wish him merry Christmas.”
“He said they’d started boarding, but you know what those lines are like,” her mother said. “Call him back.”
“Never mind.” Hayley knew how focused Brad was on his job. In his mind, he was gone before the plane left the runway.
She would miss him. Christmas was one of the few times a year they were able to spend time together. Marathon board games and late-night chats about what was going on in their busy lives helped fill the gap over the long months when they rarely saw each other. Now she and her mom had to deal with, not only the loss of her father, but Brad’s absence.
Joyce seemed to be thinking along similar lines. “I’m glad you’re here, at least.”
“I am too.” Hayley gave her mom a tender smile. Sadness welled in her then. Brad would come home, but her father wouldn’t. This first Christmas without her dad was going to be hard for her too.
She flicked off the TV and reached into the decorations box for the jumbled string of lights. She got them untangled and wound around the tree and then proceeded to carefully hang her favorite glittering balls. It was only two weeks until Christmas. Her mom was late with everything this year—the tree, the cards, the baking. Joyce hadn’t wanted to bother at all, claiming it didn’t feel like Christmas without her Stan. Hayley had insisted on all their usual beloved rituals. They needed some feel-good moments in a big way.
“I hear we’re going to finally get some rain,” Hayley commented to change the subject. “We sure need it.” On the surrounding hills, browned grass and blackened scrub bore evidence of recent wildfires.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a white Christmas?” Joyce said wistfully. She licked the flap of the envelope, sealed it, and added it to the growing stack of cards.
“Uh, Mom, we live in Southern California,” Hayley said carefully.
“I know that, silly,” Joyce said, waving a hand. She got a dreamy far-off look on her face. “I miss having seasons. When I was a girl in Spokane, we would go tobogganing or skiing at this time of year. Sometimes I think it would be nice to move north again.”
“How far north?” Living in San Diego, Hayley was only sixty miles or so away from her mom’s small town of Fallbrook. If Joyce were to move out of state she wouldn’t see her as frequently.
“Oh, don’t listen to me. It’s just a pipe dream.” Joyce selected another card and began to write.
Hayley went back to hanging ornaments. As an interior decorator, she cringed at some of the homemade decorations she and Brad had made as kids, but her mom always said the tree wasn’t complete without them. She glanced indulgently at her mother’s smoothly coiffed ash-blonde head bent over another card. She was so sentimental.
“I’m writing a card for Brad,” Joyce said. “Do you want to sign it? We can make him a care package of some of my home-baked Christmas goodies and the shortbread you’re making.”
“He would appreciate that.” Hayley put down the tinsel and sat next to Joyce on the sofa to sign the card. “Hardly anybody sends real cards anymore. You could save a lot of time and money by sending e-cards.”
“I like the personal touch,” Joyce said, pasting a stamp on the addressed envelope. “It’s nice to receive a handwritten card. It shows your friends and family that you care and are willing to take the time to let them know you’re thinking of them.”
“Not everyone has the time, but you’re right.” Hayley had to admire her mother for writing a personal note in each and every one of the dozens of cards she sent. She hesitated, then broached what she knew to be a touchy subject. “Are you sending one to your brother?”
“I don’t know where he lives.” Joyce spoke lightly, but mention of her brother deepened the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. “I haven’t heard from Gordon in over forty years. He hasn’t bothered to keep in touch or inform me where he’s living.”
Hayley put an arm around her mother’s shoulder. Joyce’s cool, flippant tone didn’t fool her; her mom felt the absence of her brother deeply. “I never understood how you could become estranged from your only sibling. Growing up in foster care, you were all each other had.” She thought of Brad and shivered to think how easily an estrangement could happen when people didn’t stay in touch.
“I don’t get it, either,” Joyce said. “We used to be so close. When our parents died in the car crash, I was three and Gordie was ten. Even though he was so much older, he always looked out for me. I idolized him.”
Kind of like her and Brad, Hayley thought. As a kid, she’d followed him everywhere, eager to do whatever he did, just to be with him.
“As soon as Gordie graduated from high school, he left home to travel and look for work.” Joyce’s voice wobbled. “It came out of the blue. I had no idea he was going away. The morning he left, I begged him to stay, or to take me with him. He tried to comfort me, but I was hysterical with grief and rage. In the end, he got on that bus, anyway. I felt so abandoned. It was worse even than losing my mother and father.”
“You would have been only eleven,” Hayley reminded her. “You were still in school. How could he take you?”
“I know.” Joyce sighed. “In hindsight I understand, but a child doesn’t see all the ramifications, she only feels the loss.”
“Did he call or write?” Hayley asked.
“He sent the occasional postcard—always from different, far-away places—but that was almost worse.” Joyce looked down at her hands. “Hearing from him reminded me of what I’d lost.”
“Postcards aren’t much. He could have made more of an effort to stay in touch,” Hayley said. “You were his little sister.” Maybe Gordon wasn’t such a nice person as her mom made out. Or was he just thoughtless? Like the way Brad had neglected to speak to her again before he hung up.
A faint ding sounded from the oven timer.
“The cookies are done. I’ll get us some coffee to go with them.” Hayley went to the kitchen and pulled the pan of shortbread out, put half-a-dozen pieces on a plate, and poured fresh coffee, adding a dash of cinnamon.
“Here we go,” she said, placing a tray on the coffee table. “When was the last time you heard from Gordon?”
Joyce poured cream into her cup. “Ten or twelve years after he left home, he wrote a letter from Montana. It was only a few lines to say he was working in construction and that he was married with a baby on the way.”
“Did you reply?” Hayley asked.
“Not right away,” Joyce admitted. “I was married by then. Your brother was a hyperactive two-year-old, and you were a newborn. Your father was away a lot for work, and I was a frazzled young mother. Then I went back to work too. Life was a blur. You’ll find out one day.” She cast Hayley a wistful glance. “If you ever decide to settle down.”
“Mom, don’t start,” Hayley said mildly. This was an old skirmish, but she knew her mother was proud of her for starting her own interior design business. One day she hoped to marry and have a family, but at the moment that wasn’t on the horizon. “When I do settle down and have babies, you’ll be an awesome grandmother. In the meantime, tell me more about Gordon.”
“I have a photo.” Joyce rose and went to the wall unit, bringing out an old album. Leafing through the pages, she found a strip of four small photos from a photo booth of her and her brother, goofing around in different poses. “This was taken a few weeks before he went away.”
Hayley studied the photos with a smile. Her mom had a blonde ponytail and a silly grin. Gordon had windblown light brown hair, laughing eyes, and a wide smile. About eighteen years old, he had pleasant, even features. “You’re cute! Uncle Gordon is handsome.” She paused. “Can I have one of these?”
“Of course.” Joyce took a pair of small scissors and cut the strip in half, handing two photos to Hayley. A pensive smile of reminiscence played about her face as she looked down at the photos left in her hand. “About ten months after I got Gordon’s letter, I finally wrote back. Pages and pages, telling him everything that had happened to me since he’d left home. About you and your brother and your dad and our home.” Her voice broke, and she paused to steady herself. “I told him how much I loved him and that I wanted to see him again…”
“And?” Hayley prompted gently.
“I never heard from him again.” Joyce slipped the photos back inside the album. “I was devastated.”
“Maybe your letter never reached him,” Hayley said. “Maybe he moved.”
“Or maybe he decided he didn’t need his overemotional little sister in his life after all,” Joyce said.
“You’re not overemotional. You’re loving and kind.” Hayley leaned over to hug her mother again. “You’ve moved yourself quite a bit over the years. Didn’t you ever try to find him?”
“Once I went to the state library and looked for him in phone books from Montana, but I couldn’t find his name anywhere,” Joyce said. “That was years ago, in the days before the internet.”
Hayley feigned surprise. “You mean there was a time before the internet?”
“I know, I’m still living in the prehistoric era,” Joyce replied dryly. “I like it here.”
“He’s probably on Facebook,” Hayley said.
“Not everyone is on social media,” Joyce said. “I’d rather meet my friends in person.”
Hayley was long used to her mom’s rants against constant connectedness, but this was Joyce’s only brother. There had to be some deeper reason that stopped her mother from looking harder for Gordon. Childhood feelings of loss and rejection must be difficult to overcome, she concluded.
“I don’t even know if he’s alive, much less if he’s still living in Montana,” Joyce went on. “Anyway, whatever went wrong between us, too much time has passed. It’s too late to patch things up now.”
“It’s never too late.” Hayley picked up a Christmas card depicting a snow-covered cabin with a candle glowing in the window. She handed it to her mom along with a pen. “Write to him. I’ll track down an address and mail it when I mail the others, along with Brad’s parcel.” She cut off one of the photos of brother and sister. “Put that inside to remind him of your childhood together.”
“I don’t know…” Joyce lifted her troubled gaze to meet Hayley’s. “Gordon meant so much to me as a child. If he doesn’t reply, it would be like losing him all over again.”
“You’ll never know if you don’t try,” Hayley said, pressing the pen into her mom’s hand. “Go on. It’s Christmas. If there’s ever going to be a time to reconnect with your brother, it’s now. You don’t want to get old and then have regrets.”
“Well, thank you for not saying I’m old now,” Joyce replied jokingly, but she took the card and pen. “Don’t look over my shoulder!” she added when Hayley sat there expectantly.
“All right, all right.” Hayley rose and went back to decorating the tree.
When she glanced back at her mother, Joyce had a real smile on her face as she wrote in her graceful slanting script. Her mom was right, the personal touch meant so much more.
She was about to place the angel on the top of the tree when an idea struck her. Instead of mailing the card, she would deliver it to her uncle in person. Whatever had caused the long-ago rift, surely, he would feel the passage of time and want to reconnect with his sister. Her mom would be surprised and thrilled to get a phone call. Hayley glanced over at her mother, still writing away. She wouldn’t say anything about her plan now, in case she couldn’t find Gordon, or worse, in case Joyce was right and he wasn’t interested in renewing his relationship with his sister.
“Oh, by the way, Mom.” Hayley strived to sound casual.
“Yes, dear,” Joyce said absently.
“I, uh, forgot to tell you…I’m going away for a few days next week.”
Joyce glanced up, frowning. “But Christmas is two weeks away. Can’t it wait until the new year?”
“I’ll be back in time, don’t worry,” Hayley assured her. “It’s just that something has come up. I need to go now.”
“For a client?”
“No,” Hayley said slowly. “It’s a thing I’m doing on spec. But it’s important. I can’t let this opportunity go by. I don’t know when I’ll have another chance.”
“Lydia is coming to stay for a few days next week on her way to see her daughter in Flagstaff,” Joyce reminded her. “She was hoping to see you too.”
Lydia was the foster kid her mom had been closest to after her brother had left. They’d spent five years together and she was the nearest Joyce had to a sister. Lydia lived in Seattle but she and her mom had kept in touch, sharing photos of their children as they grew.
“I’d love to see Aunt Lydia,” Hayley said. “I hope I’ll be home before then, but I can’t guarantee it.”
“Well, as long as you’re back before Christmas,” Joyce said. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“You’ll have family on the holiday,” Hayley promised. Maybe more than she expected.
End of Excerpt